What kind of person is Donald McNeil?

TUESDAY, MARCH 2, 2021

We can think of several answers: Yesterday afternoon, we read Donald McNeil's lengthy account of the events which led to his recent forced departure from the New York Times.

What kind of person is Donald McNeil? Obviously, we can't tell you.

After reading his account of these widely-discussed events, he strikes us as a person who may be inclined to say a bit more than is necessarily required in some particular circumstance.  Some people are so inclined, and it may get them in trouble.

It might be better if McNeil weren't so inclined, if he actually is. That said, according to the leading authority on his career, McNeil, who is 67 years old, is also this kind of person:

From 1995 to 2002, he was a foreign correspondent [for the New York Times] based in South Africa and France. It was during this time that McNeil began covering HIV/AIDS and took an interest in vaccine-preventable diseases.

In 2002, McNeil joined the science staff of The New York Times and was assigned to cover global health. At the time, McNeil had to convince his editor, Cornelia Dean, to allow him to cover "diseases that poor people die of." McNeil's later work on a series of stories about diseases on the brink of eradication was awarded the top prize by the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Prize in Journalism in 2006.

In 2013, he was featured in an acclaimed documentary about AIDS drugs, Fire in the Blood.

McNeil began covering the outbreak of the Zika virus for The New York Times in late 2015. He gained attention for his coverage of viral outbreaks. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he became known for his early and persistent warnings about the severity of the situation. McNeil appeared on The Daily to talk about COVID-19 on February 27, 2020, marking him as one of the first to bring widespread attention to the COVID-19 virus in the United States. He also interviewed Dr. Anthony Fauci about Fauci's working relationship with President Donald Trump. His early coverage and acclaimed writing made him one of the prominent journalists covering COVID-19.

We aren't qualified to assess McNeil's reporting on global health. Nor can we vouch for every claim in that account. 

That said, the claims are derived from such sources as this interview / profile in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. It's also true that McNeil is the kind of person who won the John Chancellor Prize  for Excellence in Journalism, just last year, for the quality of his reporting on the Covid-19 pandemic. Here's part of what the announcement alleged:

Columbia Journalism School announced today that Donald G. McNeil Jr., a science and health reporter at The New York Times, is the recipient of the 2020 John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism. For over a quarter-century, McNeil has dedicated his career to writing about infectious diseases that afflict people in developing countries and pandemics that have swept the globe. Since working as a correspondent based in Africa in the mid-1990’s, he has mastered reporting on viral outbreaks covering HIV-AIDS, Ebola, swine flu, malaria, Zika, and now coronavirus, among others. This year, his authoritative coverage helped inform and prepare millions of readers for the gravest health crisis the world has faced in a century.

"Sometimes the perfect reporter meets the perfect story. That happened this year. Donald knows science and medicine, and he is a determined and ambitious reporter who doesn't stop till he finds the truth," said Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times.

[...]

“Donald McNeil’s deeply reported work reflects an expertise rare in daily journalism,” said Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia Journalism School and a member of the Chancellor jury. “His dedication to the well-being of all people and his passion for justice reflect the integrity of the late John Chancellor.”

We can't vouch for any of that. At any rate, that was then, and this is post-Peru.

For ourselves, we're willing to guess that McNeil knows a lot more than we do about a range of significant topics. We'll even guess that he knows more than many teen-agers at our most elite prep schools.

For whatever reason, the summers of 2018 and 2019 found McNeil on Times-sponsored educational junkets to Peru. He was cast in the role of public health expert for a bunch of middle-school and prep school kids who were paying $5500 to study public health issues.

According to Ben Smith's account of these events, those junkets began as a source of revenue for the Times. 

"In 2012, when The New York Times was panicked about its financial future, this newspaper went into the travel business," Smith wrote. A few years later, this side venture had McNeil traipsing through Peru.

After reading McNeil's account of that trip, it sounds like he may have frequently said a bit more than was required. It sounds like he may have said such things to a bunch of prep school kids who may conceivably know a bit less than they believe they do.

(Teen-agers tend to be like that.)

We were struck by the early, gruesome "journalism" surrounding these events. The Daily Beast broke the non-story about the way a few of these kids had been offended by McNeil's alleged remarks. It was clear that the Beast had no idea what McNeil had actually said to these prep school students.

It was also clear that the Daily Beast wasn't concerned about that. The Beast had heard (correctly, as it turned out) that McNeil, on one occasion, had spoken the N-word to a few of those kids in a discussion of racist language, and that was enough for The Beast. 

The Beast produced inflammatory accounts of McNeil's overall conduct, ignoring the fact that The Beast had no real idea what had ever been said.

Has our journalism ever been dumber? We're not sure it has. 

After reading McNeil's account, it sounds to us that he frequently may have said a bit more than the occasion required—especially given the fact that he had been thrown in with a bunch of kids who may have been extremely sure of the things they thought they knew.

Based on what McNeil himself wrote, it sounds to us like he showed poor judgment on two occasions. That said, whose bad judgment had sent him off on this dumb money-making adventure in the first place?

The technical dumbness of our upper-end journalism is on constant wide display. Back in 2018, the New York Times' initial reporting on the incident at Smith College is a museum-level example of very bad, very dumb reporting.

Offhand, we can't think of a reason ever to say the N-word aloud. There are quite a few other words of that type which we'd never say aloud—insulting words in the realms of gender and race, words which have caused mountains of pain down through the long ugly years.

In our view, McNeil showed imperfect judgment in saying the N-word aloud, even in the context described. (One of the students raised the general topic.)

That said, we also can't think of a reason to produce the kind of journalism The Daily Beast did; to produce that initial report on the incident at Smith College; or to force the resignation of a reporter who actually knows a great deal about important subject matter, at least not over the events which seem to have occurred in Peru.

The vast range of people will think we're weirdly dumb in Our Town when we behave in these ways. People will think we're weirdly dumb, and lacking in basic judgment.

Who's to say that those people are wrong? These incidents, piled one on top of the next, send such people over to Trump. They feel that they will be massacred next by us know-it-all Dimmesdales, and who's to say that they're wrong?

We aren't inclined to blame teen-agers for lacking ultimate wisdom. It's the adult behavior at Smith College, and at the Times, which may cost us votes in Our Town.

The teens in Peru had spent the big bucks. Their accounts of what had occurred were quickly assumed to be sensible, accurate, reliable, beyond dispute. 

"Verdict first," The Beast seemed to say. Commenters raced into line to agree.

We think of something the janitor at Smith College said—the janitor who was completely falsely accused by the college freshman:

“We used to joke, don’t let a rich student report you, because if you do, you’re gone.”

We aren't inclined to blame teenagers for having imperfect judgment. But after that, the adults step in. Their performances of virtue will quickly clear the room.

Is McNeil an expert on subject matter? Citizen, please! At times of cultural revolution, who needs distractions like that?


53 comments:

  1. "he strikes us as a person who may be inclined to say a bit more than is necessarily required in some particular circumstance"

    Gosh, that's exactly what Somerby says about Trump!

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    1. Sometimes that "flaw" indicates a drinking problem.

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  2. "a bunch of middle-school and prep school kids"

    They were reported as being high school grads entering their first year of college. But Monica Lewinsky was 22 not 21 when she worked for Clinton. Funny how Somerby can bend facts when it suits him, but objects when others do so.

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  3. "What kind of person is Donald McNeil? Obviously, we can't tell you."

    We can, dear Bob: any NYT journo these days is a goebbelsian dembot.

    And we must admit: we greatly enjoy watching your liberal-hitlerian cult devouring its own. More purges, please.

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  4. The Beast reported what the kids said. Somerby bends over backwards to invalidate these kids, just as he did with that girl in 2018 who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and any other young person whose account of things he dislikes. Today he says "teenagers are like that" about these 18-year-old adults.

    McNeil was fired for being an asshole, not for being a racist. The racist complaint is easier to defend, so that is the one he addresses.

    Somerby has been a stand-up comedian most of his career. He may not understand corporate culture (even in a newspaper). It often doesn't matter how well you do your job, if you cannot get along with other people.

    No one has accused McNeil of not knowing his stuff. Yet, Somerby spends most of his essay detailing McNeil's credentials as a public health reporter. That expertise is no doubt why they sent him on that tour. But it doesn't justify him flapping his mouth in ways that hurt the NY Times and jeopardized their business, any more than it would have been OK for him to put that stuff into what he wrote for the paper.

    When an organization goes looking for a way to fire someone, it is often because of a drug or alcohol problem, sexual harassment, embezzlement, or some other embarrassing problem that the organization wishes to avoid exposing to the public. McNeil apparently has fans, but that doesn't excuse the way he behaved. If he acted that way because of pique about being assigned to go on the tour, it appears to have backfired on him.

    Somerby, literal to the end, chooses not to read between any lines, ever. He does McNeil no favors encouraging his defenders. McNeil can do fine writing freelance and the NY Times may have done him a huge favor by letting him go. It isn't as if he needs to make his reputation (which he is busy ruining) by working for them.

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    1. McNeil’s problem is that the NYT newsroom is comprised of people who aren’t much older than college students and who have spent years in an authoritarian environment in which they are alternately told and forewarned that they are the possessors of all truth and best not forget it.

      We saw the results of that in the way they had the NYT sachems running scared after the Tom Cotton Op-Ed last summer.

      God help the adults at the NYT and Smith College. They no longer have the moral wherewithal to stand up against these brutal little Cultural Revolutionaries.

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    2. So, you think it is OK for O'Neill to have behaved the way he did on that tour to Peru?

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    3. Anonymouse 5:59pm, I think he was ill-suited for the job. He had apologized. It was in the past, until he had the audacity to be an”asshole” toward tyros who should have gleaned that they should be more tolerant of that out of respect for his talent in their profession.

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    4. It was in 2019. Why would someone who went through nearly losing his job (and having his union fight to keep him on) behave badly toward others after that?

      By your reasoning women should have let Harvey Weinstein continue raping them, because he was so important to the industry. There is no reason why anyone, tyro or not, should tolerate abuse on the job. Civility is important to permit everyone to do their best work, and one person is not more important than others in a collaborative effort, like putting out a newspaper.

      But it really bothers me that Somerby keeps making excuses for these guys. It is about time to revive Roy Moore's innocuous activities with tyros who should never have told their mamas what Moore was doing to them. Right Cecelia?

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    5. Right, Anonymouse 7:04pm, that is what I’m saying. There’s no difference from being a talented temperamental artist, scientist, writer and a temperamental rapist.

      You got me, Einstein.

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    6. You don't get to be "temperamental" on the job unless you own your own business. "Temperamental" in this case, is your euphemism for an inability to get along with other staff.

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    7. The NYT has been running off established writing talent and even an editor all year now based upon the demands of its newsroom.

      When will they learn to get along with people who aren’t identical to them?

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    8. That editor deserved to be run off. His experiment in hiring controversial voices bombed.

      You conservatives are going to find a great deal of "house cleaning" in the next year or so. All those Trump loving jerks are going to be shown the door. It can't happen soon enough.

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  5. The accounts of the so-called children on the tour were considered beyond dispute because they came independently from 10 different sets of parents. In science, that's called converging evidence.

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    1. Why wouldn’t the NYT have taken McNeil off the job of being Maria Von Trapp to a bunch of high school students and left him to being what he is— a none too socially adept, but highly regarded science reporter?

      It’s quite ironic that the young staffers that the NYT hired in lieu of paying experienced reporters more money have them running scared like they’re college deans caught in the company of DAR members.

      Delete
    2. The NY Times article that Somerby excerpted last week (or so) said that O'Neill didn't get along with other staff and had run-ins with several of them, being a crusty old-style reporter who refused to censor himself for anyone.

      Only hermits get to act that way. This isn't a matter of youngish reporters who aren't used to outspoken people. The guy was apparently a jerk to those around him. You can't work in any organization and behave that way. HE is the problem, not those around him. That's why he was encouraged to resign, despite his expertise.

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    3. McNeil had been at the NYT since 1976.

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    4. And? What's your point?

      That makes him fairly old now. It may be that he has lost some of his frontal lobe functioning (which happens with older people) and is no long able to evaluate the appropriateness of his comments, or use restraint. It is how old men become "dirty" old men, when they lose the ability to know what is appropriate and cannot control their own comments.

      Or maybe he was a jerk when younger too, but his bad behavior was tolerated then and isn't now. Things have changed for the better in workplaces.

      Or maybe he has acquired a drug or drinking problem, or maybe he just thinks his age entitles him to behave badly. Who knows. But it isn't the fault of the people who complain -- it is his responsibility to behave professionally at work. That is the expectation for anyone with a job.

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    5. It means he’s an employee of significant ability and long-standing, who deserved more loyalty than to be booted after some grudge-holder ran to the Daily Beast with the complaint that the newsroom didn’t feel “safe”.

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    6. You think companies show loyalty to their employees? How sweet. How naive. Employees are let go when they no longer serve the needs of the business, no matter how long their service. He was "booted" (he actually resigned) because he wasn't useful to the NY Times any longer. Had he been essential, they might have defended him more vigorously and encouraged one of the "tyros" to resign instead.

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    7. McNeil apologized and wasn’t fired until the story went national via staff taking it to the Daily Beast.

      We’ve had an entire year of seeing how pathetically cowed the NYT managers are by the people Ben Rhodes exultantly described as know-nothings.

      Dangerous as rattlesnakes know-nothings.

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    8. The Right-wing mouthpiece called the NY Times is cowed into nothing. The NY Times pretended to care that Republicans pretended to care about Hillary Clinton's email server, because they want the HUGE corporate tax breaks Republicans give them.

      Were you "cowed' into being a bigot, too?

      Delete
    9. The Daily Beast interviewed students on that tour and their parents. They are quoted. Their article wasn't about those tyros you mentioned at all.

      At least some of the tensions at the NY Times are because they imported new conservative writers to attract Trump supporters as readers in 2017. You keep portraying this as a matter of young writers versus old ones, but it is more a matter of conservatives not getting along with liberals or moderates among the existing NY Times, when they came on board trying to make a name for themselves. This isn't about PC Culture. It is about conservatives behaving badly, in my opinion. Several of them are now gone and good riddance to them.

      Delete
  6. "“We used to joke, don’t let a rich student report you, because if you do, you’re gone.”

    And yet he wasn't fired. Go figure.

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    1. The other employees involved were harassed with notes and calls. Do you know what happened with the janitor? The NYT didn’t release his name in their article.

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    2. Yes, it was established that he wasn't present and nothing whatsoever happened to him.

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    3. What do you mean nothing happened to him? He was accused of being a racist harasser and became the subject of an internal investigation where the college essentially acceded to the charge that it’s employees are racially insensitive and need hours of training in how not to trample the feelings of a minority member who has entered into a closed off section of the campus.,

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    4. Nothing happened to him. He wasn't there, so the investigation exonerated him. His name appeared on a college students blog -- so what?

      A dorm that is closed for the summer is not "a closed off section of the campus." Ask yourself why the cafeteria worker was there, if the dorm was "closed off". Why was there a guard? It was most likely being operated to serve summer students or a summer camp, or perhaps was renting its rooms to tourists (as many campuses do during the summer). If it were "closed off" that student would have had to break in, which she didn't do. She walked in and was found using a couch -- the horror!

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    5. Exactly. Such a trifling. Kanoute was asked by Smith employees doing their jobs to go eat lunch elsewhere.

      The horror indeed. For this these people were investigated, reported about in the locals, and some harassed and threatened.

      Now the entirety of Smith College personnel is suspect and must receive special training in how not to do what your employers tell you to do in the case of minority students.

      And all for the piddly incident you so well described.

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    6. Cecelia, you missed the part where this incident had died down but was revived by Tucker Carlson. If anyone is currently being annoyed by this, including those workers, it is because the right wing has been exploiting it as an anti-left anecdote, targeting Smith College and the student whose name you are now circulating for attention.

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    7. The NYT and that other bastion of conservatism and of the conservative audience- The Daily Beast, brought the story to the forefront.

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  7. When did defending your child become a "performance of virtue"?

    Somerby has clearly never been a parent.

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  8. This is the age of surveys. You can't buy a jar of peanut butter without being asked to complete a survey about the experience.

    Why wouldn't a parent complain when a tour costing upwards of $5500 was not as advertised? Unsatisfactory? Not a suitable learning experience? They are the consumers and they are trying to raise their kids and provide them with positive learning experiences.

    There is no planet where this is not McNeil's fault, but the parents were to blame for being too parental. If they wanted their kids to see the gritty side of the world, they could have given them $50 and a backpack and said "Don't come back until Fall." Consumers rule this time period and smart businesses take feedback seriously, as the NY Times did.

    If Somerby thinks this is why people are voting for Trump, then they truly are elitist snowflakes, arguing that reporters should be able to behave like dumb fucks and say whatever they want to impressionable youth without getting fired. We should all collect our pennies and send Somerby a "Fuck your Feelings" t-shirt.

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  9. How many more posts is Somerby going to waste on the massive non-story of Donald McNeil? Answer: lots more.

    Clearly, Somerby isn’t upset by these bullshit “culture wars” stories, else he wouldn’t spend so much time on them. He actually seems to enjoy writing about them. So much for education, the economy, health care, labor unions. It’s a lot more fun, apparently, to waste your waning years following the bullshit stuff Fox News spends about 100% of its time covering. The effect, of course, is to distract their viewers from real issues by non-stop “liberals suck” propaganda, and the non-Fox media does its part by indulging in these types of trivialities as well. Somerby is a full participant in it now.

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    1. Lots of blogs out there that do talk about those things.

      Odd to see you waiting your precious time, energy, and boundless humanity typing complaints that will not change a thing,

      It’s a big internet, mh. Go find your joy!

      Fly, mh! Fly!

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    2. Liberals are here because this used to be a somewhat liberal blog devoted to critical thinking, not conservative propaganda (as it is now). There is nothing odd about defending the truth in the service of democracy. What do you think you are doing here, Cecelia, besides trolling?

      Somerby's big lie is that he is any kind of liberal.

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    3. Then spend your time at a blog that you have some regards for and quit trolling this blog, the blogger, and the people who have respect for the blogger.

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    4. "Rachel Maddow took a much-deserved victory lap on Tuesday night as MSNBC soars in the ratings and Fox News hemorrhages viewers."

      Right-wing influencer Bob Somerby did his best to steer people back to Fox, suggesting that we need to be aware of what The Others think and believe, but his efforts were to no avail.

      Tomorrow, he will be talking about the grave wrong done by Biden when he didn't mention Dr. Seuss, and how cancel culture is removing several of his books (even though it was the publisher who pulled them). Why? Because that is what Fox News has been talking about 24/7.

      Cecelia, you haven't been here long enough to tell those of us who have been Somerby readers for decades, to leave these blog comments. It makes you sound beyond foolish to issue these demands.

      Somerby doesn't read his comments, but if he were to do so, and decided he didn't like what was being said, he could institute some moderation and rules. There are other blogs where commenters are not allowed to rag on the blog writer. Somerby, unlike you, perhaps still believes in allowing discussion. That may go, along with other Somerby principles, but until it does, you can fuck off. And take your clueless, annoying friends with you.

      Delete
    5. The commenters on this blog are SO dumb! Lord! mh - did a cinder block fall on your head or what? Any blogger can write anything they want.

      What you write is so dumb you must be joking.

      Delete
    6. Corby, I can’t make anyone leave here and wouldn’t if I could.

      What I can do is ask the obvious question to readers bemoaning the blogger and his content and who then call people who have respect for the blogger “troll”. As though it was your blog.

      Why are you here reading content you think is superfluous from a blogger that you think is a phony, a liar, someone who taught children in order to enjoy dominating them, a misogynist, an appeaser of racists, a pedophile, a guy who likes his college bud a little more.. wink...wink.., than he should.

      And other highly personal insults.

      It’s an obvious question. I plan to keep asking it.

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    7. They create these idiotic scapegoats and stupidly ascribe nefarious motives to what he writes because it helps them avoid the alternative which would involve taking a critical look at their beliefs and seeing that their conduct does indeed, resembles theirs.

      But mostly they are just dumb and scared. Ie. normal Americans.

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    8. No, most Americans may be scared nowadays, but they aren’t dumb.

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    9. These Right-wing snowflakes were NEVER going to protect you from Al Quaeda. That was just a story the Right-wing fantasy-writers in the corporate-owned MSM told themselves.

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    10. The multi-nymed troll here creates scapegoats and ascribes nefarious motives to what Somerby writes because it helps them avoid looking directly at the shortcomings of their party and the truth Somerby writes about their conduct resembling the other side's.

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    11. Cecelia, Somerby himself calls this a liberal blog and speaks about "Our Town," which you are not part of. His focus used to be liberal politics and not attacking liberals for being liberal. That's why these comments are populated by mostly liberals. You and the other conservative commenters here are trolls because you are coming here to engage in liberal-baiting and because you never contribute to substantive discussion. You are a nuisance and not funny to liberals, if your conservative friends find you hilarious.

      Many of us are here to talk in comments with other liberals. I am here because I wouldn't want anyone to mistakenly believe Somerby's claim to be liberal, and because I think it is important to defend truth during this season of Republican big lies. I've explained that several times already, so your continual repetition of that question is now a form of annoyance.

      You don't belong here. It is nicer when you're gone. Take a hint.

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    12. Yet another hallmark of a troll. You consider this to be your turf. Your blog. You think that you have squatter’s rights in cyberland.

      You don’t. The real blog owner hasn’t limited his audience in any way.

      You need help with your delusions of grandeur and of reference. You’ need to go find a professional who has some understanding of human psychology.

      Delete
    13. "You need help with your delusions of grandeur..."

      Or become a cop, and be given a gun to use with immunity. Amirite?

      Delete
    14. Loose associations. Yes, you need help too.

      Delete
  10. Didn't he run a breakfast club?

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